English Language and Linguistics Celebrates Variation and Change in English

English Language & Linguistics, from Cambridge University Press

Professor Bas Aarts, University College London, UK
Professor April McMahon, University of Edinburgh, UK
Dr Wim van der Wurff, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

English Language & Linguistics is, according to its editorial policy, ‘an international journal which focuses on the description of the English language within the framework of contemporary linguistics.’ What makes ELL fairly unusual is that it ‘is concerned equally with the synchronic and the diachronic aspects of English language studies’; and it takes an equally liberal approach to ‘the English language’, bringing together work on variation and change. There is a particular (though not exclusive) emphasis on using data from varieties of English, both in the present day and in the past, to propose, test and refine theoretical claims in linguistics. Variation and change are closely interlinked, but so often journals consider them separately, while ELL is special in recognising and celebrating the links between them, and in exploring the application of the most up-to-date linguistic methods to data from different periods and varieties.

It is straightforward to find examples of papers which illustrate these trends from recent issues of the journal. For instance, Julie van Bogaert offers a new perspective on the use of what she calls Complement-Taking Mental Predicates (CMTPs) such as I think, I believe, I guess, and so on, which often perform an interpersonal function by modifying the meaning of another clause. Using authentic data from corpora, she argues that CMTPs have reached different levels of entrenchment and schematicity in English, and that the mostly deeply entrenched exemplars have the highest number of variant forms. Thus, I think, which is the most widely used CMTP in the author’s corpus data, has nine variant forms (I was thinking, I’m thinking, I thought, I should think, etc.), whereas the least widely used I realize has only one other variant form (I do realize). CMTPs are regarded as constructions in their own right, which are part of a constructional network that displays various levels of schematicity.
(Van Bogaert, ELL 14.3 ‘A constructional taxonomy of I think and related expressions: accounting for the variability of complement-taking mental predicates’)

Stefan Gries and Martin Hilpert also take a corpus-based approach, this time applied to the change of the English third-person singular present tense suffix from dental fricative (giveth) to alveolar fricative (gives). Working with over 20,000 examples from 1417-1681, Gries and Hilpert aim to determine the salient temporal stages for this development, and the main factors correlated with the change. Rather than dividing their data into pre-determined time periods, they apply a bottom-up clustering method, Variability-Based Neighbor Clustering, which groups the data into temporal sets characterised by high levels of within-group similarity. The groupings are therefore data-driven rather than externally imposed. Gries and Hilpert then argue that different factors matter during different stages of the change: in the periods when the most rapid and dramatic changes are taking place, relevant factors are phonological, syntactic and sociolinguistic (for example, writers begin to use the new gives form to addressees of the opposite sex). Their aim is not simply to cast light on this particular change, but to extend and test the methods available within diachronic corpus research.
(Gries and Hilpert, ELL 14.3 ‘Modeling diachronic change in the third person singular: a multifactorial, verb- and author-specific exploratory approach’)

Further corpus work shedding light on variation is found in Rhona Alcorn’s article ‘Grammatical person and the variable syntax of Old English personal pronouns’ (ELL 13:3)  – a revised version of an essay that in 2008 was awarded the Richard M. Hogg prize for work by an early-career scholar in English language and linguistics. The article addresses the variability in Old English between P + pronoun and pronoun + P word orders (e.g. to him vs. him to). In earlier work, based on a limited amount of data, it had been proposed that the latter order was frequent in particular with 3rd person pronouns. Using the York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose, Alcorn establishes that 3rd person indeed significantly promotes pronoun + P ordering. She goes on to show that this effect cannot be reduced to other factors, such as [± human reference], [± occurrence in direct speech], [± occurrence in translations] or the position of P relative to the verb. Two of these factors do have an independent effect: direct speech and V (…) P order both disfavour use of the pronoun + P variant.

Moving back to data from present-day English, Mark Jones and Carmen Llamas undertake detailed acoustic analysis of fricated examples of the voiceless plosives /p t k/ from speakers of Dublin and Middlesbrough English. While frication of /t/ has been reported regularly in both varieties, Jones and Llamas demonstrate that it is by no means the only plosive to undergo frication. It does, however, behave differently from /p/ and /k/, since /t/ is much more regularly subject to frication; indeed, fricative realisations of /t/ are categorical and nonvariable for at least some of the speakers investigated. While these findings are interesting and relevant in their own right for our understanding of variation and change in progress in modern English, Jones and Llamas also apply their instrumental investigations to older historical questions. In particular, they argue that the realisations of fricated /t/ in Dublin and Middlesbrough are sufficiently distinct to cast doubt on any hypothesis of direct transfer from Irish to English varieties through migration. Instead, Jones and Llamas suggest that the weight of evidence is in favour of parallel processes of lenition operating independently in these varieties.
(Jones and Llamas, ELL 12.3 ‘Fricated realisations of /t/ in Dublin and Middlesbrough English: an acoustic analysis of plosive frication and surface fricative contrasts’)

The variability investigated by Lieselotte Anderwald is located in the past tense of the verbs begin, drink, ring, shrink, sing, sink, spring, stink and swim. Is that past tense began etc. or begun etc.? Anderwald demonstrates that non-standard speakers of present-day English use high proportions of the latter form and argues that this is a case not of innovation but of retention. She shows that in a corpus of 70 nineteenth-century grammars of English, a movement can be observed over the course of the century from the listing of variable <a/u> or exclusive <u> forms for the past tense of the relevant verbs towards the listing of <a> forms only. This is sometimes explicitly motivated by grammarians pointing to the usefulness of having distinct past tense and past participle markers, i.e. <a> vs <u> for these verbs. However, non-standard speakers seem quite unreceptive to such Latin or logic-inspired ideas, instead opting to retain the formal identity of past tense and past participle that is also found in a set of phonologically similar irregular verbs (cling, dig, fling, sling, slink, spin etc., which uniformly have <u> for both) and in fact in the entire set of regular verbs of English. In this case, then, what at first sight may look like lawlessness is shown to be an example of motivated synchronic variation, having traceable roots in earlier periods of the language.
(Anderwald, ELL 15.1 ‘Norm vs variation in British English irregular verbs: the case of past tense sang vs sung’)

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